Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Sat 5 Jun 10 18:02
I take your point. But since most people are highly biased judges of their own behavior, the logical conclusion is that it's impossible to fairly judge anyone's moral worth, even our own. And yet, who can live with extreme moral relativism? Making moral judgements and acting on them is an inevitable part of human (and animal) psychology, not to mention culture and justice systems. And what positive social change happened without it? Saying "judge not" doesn't sound like practical politics.
Michelle Alexander (m-alexander) Sun 6 Jun 10 19:15
You're right; "judge not" would make a very bad political slogan. But again, I'm not arguing for moral relativism. There's a big difference between judging the morality of certain types of behavior and judging the moral worth of human beings themselves. I believe murder is morally wrong, but I don't think I can judge whether someone who kills someone else is ultimately a good or bad person. None of us are all good or all bad. As Bryan Stevenson once put it, none of us should be judged by our worst act alone. And if we can't reduce the value of a human being to a single act, then how do we go about judging? The good news is that we don't need to judge the moral worth of human beings. We can judge behavior and make rules and laws designed for our collective benefit. And we can treat everyone, no matter who they are or what they have done, with dignity and respect. That's what human rights laws are all about -- recognizing the basic dignity and value of all. We need not determine who is worthy of food, shelter, and health care. We all are. No matter who we are or what we have done. But I don't want to get too sidetracked here. The question of whether and to what extent we can successfully judge the morality of other people's behavior (or our own) is not an issue that I explored in the book. I raise the issue here only because the impulse to judge, and judge harshly, is an extremely risky and dangerous one -- more so than we generally assume. It's part of what makes it possible for us to rationalize the suffering and exclusion of others.
Michelle Alexander (m-alexander) Sun 6 Jun 10 19:17
As for "practical politics," I've been doing some thinking in recent years about what that term means. In the course of writing the book, I read lots of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speeches and was struck by how impractical he was. He consistently sought to move people beyond prevailing common sense, beyond what felt reasonable and comfortable, and far beyond what anyone thought possible. He almost never made pragmatic arguments about the unnecessary cost of maintaining separate bathrooms or separate schools. He almost never appealed to self-interest. Instead he spoke consistently about love, compassion, forgiveness, ignorance, power, greed, courage, and spiritual blindness. When reading his speeches I was struck by the fact that nobody - nobody - talks like that in mainstream, political forums today. Not surprisingly, King was constantly being told by politicians and organizers that he lacked political sense and was doomed to fail. And even after he succeeded in building a mass movement, so many former political allies turned against him, including the New York Times editorial board, when he spoke out against the Vietnam War. Nearly everyone said it was political suicide. King said he wasn't interested in playing politics; he was committed to truth and justice for everyone, everywhere. And that's precisely what is lacking today, I think. The kind of visionary leadership that is not swayed by focus groups and polling data. I hope we will see, once again, leaders and organizers who are committed to moving "the center" of American politics, not playing to it. I hope we will see the emergence of a movement that redefines what is practical and possible. I'm increasingly convinced that practical politics leads nowhere I want to go.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Mon 7 Jun 10 04:51
Michelle, we're down to the last couple of days here, and it's been a wonderful conversation. What can people who want to get involved do next? I'm with you on the failings of practical politics, but what's the next step?
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Tue 8 Jun 10 11:50
Practically, there should be a website where your data can be posted. I found the statistics shocking and horrifying. I would never have thought that on the entire planet, we are imprisoning more people than any other country, nor the genocidal percentages as well. Also, I'm curious...you mentioned in the book's introduction that your husband does not share your views about the criminal justice system. In what way(s) does he see it differently?
Michelle Alexander (m-alexander) Tue 8 Jun 10 15:07
My husband is the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio. In other words, he's the chief federal prosecutor for the southern half of Ohio. He was appointed by Obama about a year ago. Obviously, it would be difficult for him to do his job if he saw things as I do. He fully recognizes that bias exists in the system and that people who are branded felons have an extraordinarily difficult time obtaining employment, housing, public benefits and education and are frequently denied the right to vote and excluded from juries. I can't/won't speak for him in terms of what he does or doesn't agree with, but I am grateful for his loving support while I was writing this book.
Michelle Alexander (m-alexander) Tue 8 Jun 10 16:10
In terms of where we go from here, I think the most critical thing that can be done at this stage is consciousness-raising. Most people are not aware of the horrifying statistics or even how our laws operate to lock people labeled felons into a permanent second-class status for life. Most people have a vague sense that life is hard for felons, but few understand that the system is designed to create a permanent, racial undercaste. And even fewer know the history of the drug war and its links to earlier systems of racial control. So consciousness raising is essential. Without a critical understanding of what this system is, where it came from, and how it operates, there's little hope of successful movement building. So what does consciousness raising mean? It means sharing books like this one with everyone you know, as well as other books like Texas Tough, Let's Get Free, and Doing Time on the Outside. Creating book clubs that explore these issues is a great way of getting dialogue started. Consciousness raising also means sharing videos like American Violet and links to speeches, videos and other information about the bias in the drug war and its horrific consequences. If you're a member of a faith community, you can encourage members to become informed and to find ways to support people returning from prison, as well as the families of those behind bars. A growing number of churches and mosques are providing re-entry services and creating support groups for family members grieving the loss of loved ones to the new caste system. While these support efforts are critically important, they are not enough. In faith communities, as well as other organizations, it's extremely important to encourage people to move beyond support services to grassroots organizing and other forms of political advocacy. I find people often underestimate how much power they have when they act collectively. Faith groups and local community organizations can launch campaigns to end all forms of discrimination against people branded felons, including felon disenfranchisement laws, employment discrimination, and denial of public benefits. Efforts can be made to support groups of formerly incarcerated people like All of Us or None (see http://www.allofusornone.org) that are already organizing for basic civil and human rights. These groups can also participate in advocacy to reform our drug laws and abolish harsh mandatory minimum sentences. You can also start your own organization. If you're not a member a grassroots organization, and if you don't know of any grassroots organizations that you want to join, don't hesitate to start your own. It can begin with a book club. Or you can begin by launching an organization on-line. If you are formerly incarcerated, you can reach out to other people in your situation and create an organization that provides support, counseling, job training, and engages in movement-building - an organization like A New Way of Life in Los Angeles, founded by Susan Burton. And no matter what, you can always donate to those organizations that are doing great work, like All of Us or None, The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Critical Resistance, Drug Policy Alliance, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums. The Civil Rights Movement would not have been possible without the financial support of many people who did not participate in sit-ins or Freedom Rides, but who contributed financially to the cause. No matter what you do, and no matter what form your contribution takes, it's critically important to ensure that the work you are supporting is movement-building work - not mere reform work. I describe the difference between movement-building work and mere reform work in the last chapter. Of course we must seek concrete reforms. I provide a laundry list of important reforms that should be sought by advocates in chapter 6. But the WAY we seek reforms is more important that which reforms we seek. We are doing nothing more than "tinkering with the system," if we fail to challenge the prevailing public consensus about race, crime, and who is "deserving" of our collective care and concern. In short, if the reform work is responding to political reality, rather than trying to change our social and political consciousness in profound ways, whatever reforms are won will be doomed to fail in the long run. The system adapts well to changes in legal rules. In short, in our efforts to build a new movement, we should seek opportunities to work with and support those who are willing to be bold, unconventional, and radically honest -- even when it seems the truth will fall on deaf ears. And we must always, always be willing to talk about the role of race in this system. Colorblind advocacy to end this caste system merely serves to perpetuate and reinforce the understandings that gave rise to the system itself. Until we heal the racial divisions that gave rise to mass incarceration, we will continue to birth caste systems in America, even if mass incarceration fades away. Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to share my work here. Mark, you've been a wonderful host. And thank you to all who've participated in this conversation. I hope our paths will cross again soon. All the best, Michelle
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Tue 8 Jun 10 18:46
More power to you Michelle, this has been a privilege and I hope I can do my small part in raising consciousness on these issues, you have certainly raised mine.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Tue 8 Jun 10 18:47
Yes, it's been a great discussion.
Marika Wertheimer (peony) Tue 8 Jun 10 19:29
I have followed the discussion and I would like to thank you, Michelle for a wonderful and eye-opening discussion. I had no idea what some of the ramifications of being an ex-felon were. It truly is a caste system, being created. Thanks again for a great book.
Lisa Harris (lrph) Wed 9 Jun 10 04:55
At this time we will be turning our focus to a new interview. I'd like to than you, Michelle, for an enlightening discussion. Mark, thank you again for leading this discussion. By all means, continue on. There's a lot to be done.
Jessica Merz (baker) Thu 10 Jun 10 15:01
Michelle, thank you for such an insightful book and a fantastic conversation. Good luck!
Andrew Alden (alden) Mon 28 Jun 10 11:18
Columnist Leonard Pitts gives "The New Jim Crow" an unqualified rave: <http://www.insidebayarea.com/ci_15379442>
Gail Williams (gail) Mon 28 Jun 10 11:20
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Thu 1 Jul 10 10:12
The [California] State Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is endorsing a ballot initiative for this November to legalize and tax recreational marijuana use.... NAACP State President, Alice Huffman, said the organization is backing the initiative, to counter marijuana arrest rates. She contends that it unfairly targets African Americans and other minorities. <http://news.google.com/news/search?aq=f&pz=1&cf=all&ned=us&hl=en&q=naacp+calif ornia+marijuana+laws> Sounds like the leaders of the traditional Civil Rights groups have been reading the book. Which makes sense. From a recent published article, Huffman states: "There is a strong racial component that must be considered when we investigate how marijuana laws are applied to people of color," she said. "The burden has fallen disproportionately on people of color and young Black men in particular."
David Wilson (dlwilson) Thu 1 Jul 10 21:28
During the Elena Kagen confirmation hearings, Sen. Dick Durbin asked her a question of what to do about mass incarceration of blacks.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Fri 2 Jul 10 05:52
I missed that. What did she answer?
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Thu 8 Jul 10 06:37
interesting -- legalizing marijuana is a civil rights issue <http://www.cnn.com/2010/POLITICS/07/07/naacp.marijuana.support/index.html?hpt= T2>
David Gans (tnf) Thu 8 Jul 10 10:53
Damn straight. And an equal protection issue, and a matter of common decency, too.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Sat 23 Oct 10 09:56
Charles M. Blow, writing in the NYT: "Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.s recent chest-thumping against the California ballot initiative that seeks to legalize marijuana underscores how the war on drugs in this country has become a war focused on marijuana, one being waged primarily against minorities and promoted, fueled and financed primarily by Democratic politicians. " <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/23/opinion/23blow.html?ref=opinion> The column mentions Michelle's book.
those Andropovian bongs (rik) Sat 23 Oct 10 09:58
Thanks, Mark. I've been stewing over that column all morning.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Sat 23 Oct 10 12:53
Yeah, I suppose I can understand why Democratic Party is in bed with Wall Street - at least there's a rational reason for it, even it's odious. But clearly they can't really think that marijuana is dangerous, so what gives?
David Wilson (dlwilson) Thu 19 Jan 12 12:50
Michelle Alexander gets the Fresh Air treatment: <http://www.npr.org/2012/01/16/145175694/legal-scholar-jim-crow-still-exists-in -america?ft=1&f=13>
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Thu 19 Jan 12 18:32
That is a great book.
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